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Ray Anderson


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I teach the spirit of improvisation and self-expression. It's great to have an opportunity to do that.
The trombonist Ray Anderson inhabits two simultaneous worlds. He's dedicated to exploring new vocabularies at the furthest reaches of what folks call jazz music, making his initial mark with fellow Chicagoan Anthony Braxton in the late '70s. He's also deeply attuned to the New Orleans roots of the music, reveling in the very vocal nature of his horn and employing a rowdy repertoire of singing, droning and mute-manipulations, combining into a language that is at once comic and experimental. Here, his main outlet is the Pocket Brass Band. All this and there's his commitment to funk too, notably with the '70s-80s combo Slickaphonics.

Anderson seems to have been forging a new relationship with Cornelia Street Cafe, appearing twice there in recent months: first with tubaman Bob "Saloon" Stewart and then with his own quartet in October. The first set of this last gig was devoted to new material, which Anderson hopes to record in coming months. His performance was as hot-wired as ever, soloing with extroverted abandon, his involved phrases brought home with a powerful punch. His mute manipulations are exceedingly articulate, ribald and poignant in turn. His agility on the sometimes slow-talking 'bone is phenomenal. The new tunes mingled linear themes and abstract attacks, the latter mostly made by Anderson himself and drummer Gerry Hemingway.

Two months later and the trombonist's back at Cornelia again, this time set to play a duo session with bassman Mark Dresser. Like most of Anderson's musical relationships, their roots burrow deep. "I met Mark in 1975, when he first came up to New York, through mutual friends David Murray and Stanley Crouch," he recalls. Murray had invited Dresser to stay in his loft while he was away on tour. Anderson was already living there.

"I'd been here a couple of years, moving in '73," says Anderson, sitting in Rohr's coffee shop, near to his Upper East Side apartment, to a themed background of jazz records and clattering silverware. "We did play a bunch of duo gigs, back in the day. It was a musical thing immediately. With Dresser, he's one of those people where you have this experience of meeting somebody and playing with them and the communication, the sensibility, is totally connected right away. It's just easy! There's a really good feeling immediately. He's certainly one of the most immediately recognizable bassists alive. That's Mark Dresser! Nobody else does that! He worked in my band a lot. I used to work mostly as a quartet, from '86 into the early '90s. Dresser was often the bass."

By the end of 1975, the pair had played their first duo gig in New Haven, but it took until 2003 before Anderson and Dresser released their only recorded duo set so far, Nine Songs Together, on the CIMP label. The repertoire is mainly divided between the two of them, with Dresser contributing "The Five Outer Planets" mini-suite, which was commissioned for an exhibition of sculptures by Robert Taplin. These were enormous pieces that were filled with light. Anderson's pivotal number was "Taps For Jackie," written as a memorial for his recently-deceased wife. "It's the poetic interpretation of song," he says, attempting to define the trombone/bass chemistry. "It's a vocal music, as opposed to a note-orientated way or a theoretical way. We sing and we talk. We'll be doing this stuff, but lots of other stuff that I write could be played as a duo version. That's always a really interesting change."

These duos with Dresser and Bob Stewart can be compared in terms of their fascination with the low-note sonorities. The Cornelia Street gig with Stewart concentrated on their Heavy Metal Duo album (2004). Their broad sonic scope is a result of a purely buzz-lipped vocabulary, massive lung capacity and a general staccato-tonguing stamina. The chosen language is a mix of bluesy jazz huffing and disembodied splutter techniques, as one player (usually Stewart) sets up a grumbling riff and the other (usually Anderson) takes flight with nary a pause for breath.

"I've also been talking about doing some duo stuff with Marty Ehrlich," Anderson says. "That would break the low end thing. If you have tuba or bass, you automatically have something down on the bottom that can provide a rhythmic floor that makes it easier to swing." All Ehrlich has to do is unveil his bass clarinet and the low end beast is back!

Anderson has also played duo gigs with percussionist Gerry Hemingway, bassman Mark Helias and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, but these are more akin to occasional encounters. His other December date in New York is at the Middle Collegiate Church with Ehrlich and pianist James Weidman, as part of its Jazz Vespers series. "We were also talking about a Ray Anderson/Marty Ehrlich quintet. We're going to push that and make a record of that. There's a whole pool of people we both use often: Brad Jones [bass], Matt Wilson [drums]. I've known Marty at least back to 1979, working in Anthony Braxton's big band."

Anderson has just returned from Portugal and Greece, where he was subbing for trumpeter Eddie Henderson in The Leaders, a long-running supergroup. However, his normal life involves a week that's divided up into two sections. "I'm teaching at Stony Brook [University]. Generally, I'm out there half of the week. I'm the Director of Jazz Studies. I do everything there is to do with jazz out there. I have everybody from freshmen to graduate students who are incredible virtuosos. I'm very happy to be able to give people an essence of what the music is about, not dominated by a concept of what jazz is and what it isn't and what therefore is the right way to play and the wrong way to play. I teach the spirit of improvisation and self-expression. It's great to have an opportunity to do that."

Recommended Listening: Anthony Braxton, Performance (Quartet) 1979 (hatOLOGY, 1979)

Ray Anderson, Old Bottles, New Wine (Enja, 1985)

Ray Anderson, What Because (Gramavision, 1989)

Bass Drum Bone, Hence the Reason (Enja, 1996)

Ray Anderson/Mark Dresser, Nine Songs Together (CIMP, 2003)

Ray Anderson/Bob Stewart, Heavy Metal Duo (Work Songs & Other Spirituals) (s/r, 2004)

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